Farmers' fields outside the western Afghanistan city of Herat are about to blossom into a purple form of gold.
Once rife with poppy, the lucrative spring crop used to produce heroin, these plots are now seeded with saffron flowers. They yield the burnt orange granules that trade as the most expensive spice in the world. At its highest quality, saffron sells for between $2,000 and $4,000 per kilogram in global markets, enticing farmers to switch their allegiance from opium, which sells as little as a tenth as much.
Besides offering a panacea for opium cultivation – the Afghan government and its allies have struggled for years to stamp out poppies, a source of Taliban revenue – saffron has the potential to revitalize Afghanistan's participation in world agriculture markets. It could also provide a rare passageway for growers, many of whom are women, into more lucrative trading jobs traditionally reserved for men.
Agriculture was big business before the war. Exports of nuts and fruits, such as pistachios and pomegranates, were steady. Twenty per cent of the world's raisins came out of Afghanistan until the onset of conflict and drought in the late 1970s. Traditional markets began to slam shut.
"Most of the internationals know Afghanistan for narcotics and drugs," said Qudratullah Rahmati, director of the Afghanistan Red Gold Saffron Company, one of three major traders in Herat working to increase the country's saffron trade. "When people hear there is Afghan saffron, they are fascinated. Our reputation is growing, but is not what it could be," he said.
A cluster of states and non-government development organizations who recognize the potential saffron offers are working to change that. There are no credible statistics on how much saffron is currently produced in Afghanistan.
But in the rugged, semi-desert in the country's north, west and some southern provinces (including volatile Kandahar and Helmand) free saffron bulbs are occasionally distributed. Growers' associations can draw from a small pool of grants to help them with packaging costs. Research on how to improve Afghanistan's global saffron sales is underway.
In a recent policy paper, the Afghanistan Public Policy Research Organization (APPRO), a non-profit think tank, outlined Afghanistan's branding issues and lack of facilities to process saffron as key hurdles. Without high-tech facilities to package the spice, traders must frequently accept lower wholesale prices, including from buyers in Iran. That country has 95 per cent of the global saffron market and retains that chokehold, the policy paper alleges, by re-branding Afghan and other saffron as its own.
The more pressing hurdles for saffron development in Afghanistan, though, are a unique set of cultural barriers female growers face.
As with other agricultural products, women do much of the field work, including harvesting it. Women have embraced the flower over other crops because of its unique, lucrative potential. In just three years, membership in the Ghoryan Women Saffron Association, an all-female co-op near Herat, has ballooned from 72 to 480 women, according to founder Sima Ghoryani.
The product they grow is high quality. The problems start when they try to take their saffron beyond local markets without selling to middlemen who command higher commission than the producers themselves.
"When women want to compete with bigger traders in places like Herat, they are undermined and cut down by male traders," said Saeed Parto, director of research at APPRO. "They say, 'It's women's work to grow saffron and dry it. Our job is to sell it.'"
The solution, Mr. Parto said, will not come from government. Instead, he hopes international donors will help the women's associations. "We need to get them linked to borders beyond Afghanistan," he said.
Afghanistan's cash crops
A form of crocus, saffron grows well in areas normally too dry for other crops and tolerates cold weather well. It needs one to two years of growing time before yielding six years' worth of good harvests.
North, west and some parts of southern Afghanistan, including Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Strong global market with prices ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 per kilogram; grows easily in right conditions; easy to harvest; provides jobs for women.
Vulnerability to global market swings; limited domestic market; national brand weakness; lack of processing facilities in Afghanistan threatens quality of product, which must be processed quickly to retain flavour and colour.
They're cheap to plant and require little maintenance but can damage soil fertility after as little as three years of consistent growing.
Southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, bordering on Pakistan.
Lucrative cash crop; strong domestic market fuelled by Taliban buyers; strong position in international market with Afghanistan supplying more than 90 per cent of product.
Selling opium is illegal. Harvest is labour-intensive and strenuous: after poppies are cut, must be dried in sun; seed pods are then scraped for the latex (opiate residue). Sells for a fraction of what saffron can.